His Trust (Biograph)
Today’s 100 year old film is one of a few 1911 films easily accessible today.
His Trust is a Civil War drama directed by D. W. Griffith that centers on the devotion of an ex-slave for the family of his dead master. The lead character, played by a white actor in blackface, represents one common strategy for representing African Americans in silent cinema. These characters, found in films like His Trust and its sequel, His Trust Fulfilled, The Confederate Spy (Kalem, 1910), A Slave’s Devotion (Broncho, 1913), and For His Master’s Sake aka For Massa’s Sake (Pathé, 1911) “display undying loyalty and a commitment to preserving white families, facilitating white romances, and defending white supremacy, sometimes sacrificing their own lives for the Confederacy” (Stewart, 80).
While common, this caricature of black American identity depicted in His Trust, should not be taken to be indicative of all such representations of 100 years ago. The passage I cited above, taken from Jacqueline Stewart’s Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity follows her description of a variety of strategies used for such representations. To be sure, most of them functioned in the service of white supremacy. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize their specificity. Other, equally common modes of representing African Americans on film in the wake of the great migration included a tendency to “encourage a spectatorial posture of surveillance, indicating white interest in, and anxieties about, what Blacks do in their own segregated environments” and another which registered anxieties about “the unexpected entrance of Black bodies in previously closed or highly regulated white spaces” (Stewart, 78). More on these later.
Below are thumbnails to pages from the story about this film, published in the fan magazine, Motion Picture Story Magazine (later Motion Picture Magazine) in April 1911. Click on individual pages for a detailed view.
King, General Horatio. “His Trust: A Story of the Great War” Motion Picture Story Magazine 1, no. 3 (April 1911): 11-18
Stewart, Jacqueline Najuma. Migrating to the Movies: Cinema and Black Urban Modernity. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.